Scorsese's Tisch Commencement Will Remind You Why You Became a Filmmaker in the First Place
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to give such powerful, inspiring, and strangely tempering insight into what it's like to be a filmmaker. The graduating class of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts got the chance to hear the master himself share such wisdom during his commencement speech at his alma mater this year, and his words just might be what you're needing to hear.
Commencement speeches are notorious for being overly sentimental and full of cookie-cutter adages -- "Follow your dreams," "Take the road less traveled," "You can only defer your student loans for so long." However, Scorsese's speech is all about failure, the cinematic struggle, and fighting to remember the reason why you even picked up a camera in the first place.
There are so many great lessons from his speech: Be a lifelong learner! Stay true to your creative self! Get your head out of the clouds and be intentional with your future! All of those things are so great, but the thing that stuck out to me most was something he said somewhere in the middle of his address -- that we need to preserve our "initial desire -- that animating impulse" that brought us here. And it all starts with that passionate love you have, or had at one point, for making films.
In this creative environment, which can be pretty savage at times, we need reminders like Scorsese's -- and reminderers like Scorsese. In a way, advice is just another form of nostalgia, so even if his words and axioms didn't ring true for you, take note of the actual nature of his gift: he's reminiscing about his life as a filmmaker, remembering the struggle, remembering the triumphs, and sharing them with us all so that we may, yes, learn from his experience, but also, and maybe more importantly, revel in the sheer fact that someone on this earth is obsessed by and loves cinema so much that it's almost palpable. That love is truly inspiring, because Scorsese didn't start making movies because he went to film school; he didn't start making them because he came from a wealthy family, or because he grew up in New York, or because the stars aligned perfectly on the day of his conception. He started making movies because he loved cinema.
There's a way that the force of disappointment can be alchemized into something that will paradoxically renew you.
At the end of the day, the impressive totems don't matter; where or how you grew up doesn't matter; whether your gear is top of the line or bottom of the barrel doesn't matter -- as Scorsese says, there are no more excuses. All that matters is your love of film, because it will be the igniter that will set your passions aflame when they get doused by rejection and disappointment. There will be so many critics and naysayers out there -- they're out there for everyone, so it's important to learn how to avoid letting their words fatally damage your confidence. Instead, learn how to let them fortify your resolve. In the end, I think that's the difference between the "man in the arena" and the "cold and timid souls" that Scorsese talks about.
Finally, here's the full Teddy Roosevelt quote that Scorsese recites, known as "The Man in the Arena," which comes from a speech he gave in 1910 in Paris. It is perfection:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
In the end, it's better to be the man or woman in the arena -- humbled, tired, a little beaten up -- than it is to be one of those cold and timid souls. If you're still timidly dreaming about making your first film, I think Scorsese would tell you to wake up -- awaken to "your feelings, your possibilities, your ambition." If you've gone cold and let your creative fire be put out by the struggle, maybe it's time to rethink what the struggle itself means to you. Scorsese says, "be singular, inflexible, unyielding in your own work so that even the struggle, that very struggle to achieve becomes its own reward."